VERO BEACH - On March 11, Temple Beth Shalom in Vero Beach recognized Rabbi Michael Birnholz for 20 years of service with a gala reception at Pointe West Country Club.
A rabbi is normally thought of as a wise community elder. It can be daring when a synagogue hires a young rabbi, and it tends to create a buzz in a congregation that expects rabbis to be wise elders. Rabbi Birnholz did not arrive in Vero Beach as an “elder.” When he became the Temple Beth Shalom rabbi, he was younger than most of his congregants.
“I was 28 when I first took this position,” Rabbi Birnholz told Hometown News. “I was a young rabbi just out of rabbinical school, coming to my first pulpit. I was still learning about being a rabbi, as I was learning about living in Vero Beach.”
Asked if the congregation struggled to accept that a young rabbi could teach and guide them, he spoke about growing into the role by making connections, a theme that permeated our conversation.
“I heard people say they were worried about (my age), but as I got established, that concern and worry abated. I was able to make connections across age and generations.”
“As a young rabbi, I’ve got a lot of good Jewish parents in the congregation, good Jewish mothers and fathers. I say that with a lot of love, because the sages and elders of our congregation have been there as support, as a resource. As much as I’ve been able to teach them, I’ve been able to learn from them. That’s been one of the incredible parts of being here for as long as I have.”
Much of his rabbinical growth has been built around forming relationships with the non-Jewish community, which Rabbi Birnholz considers to be one of the most important parts of his job. He also considers interfaith partnerships one of his successes.
“When there has been a challenging situation, I’m able to reach out to people from different communities and connect with folks, to bring people together to face the challenges that we might face.”
“Instead of just being one of the people taking part in the interfaith community, I’ve been getting opportunities to lead and engage all sorts of activity with the wider community.”
Rabbi Birnholz says most of his interactions with other faiths in Indian River County are positive.
“There are those of other faiths that are very welcoming, and there are those that are not interested in connecting. That’s just the nature of human interactions. There are some tremendous partners in the Christian community, the Bahai community, Sacred Kashi community, wonderful, incredible people. Even though we have different faith traditions, we find ways to dialogue about how we are different and how we are similar, and that we need to collaborate with each other.”
Rabbi Birnholz spoke of a light labyrinth project with other faiths as “one of those examples of a way that we get to collaborate and work with each other, learning from each other, even if somebody has a very different story that they might be telling. We all get to use that same ritual tool together.”
The rabbi repeatedly emphasized projects that bring communities together. One was a project to press olives, which are popular in many different communities.
“The olive pressing was one of those projects where I had a brainstorm of ‘can we do this?’ Just to watch different people step forward in different moments, from the person who designed the press, to the boy working on his eagle scout project who built the press, to the person who took the olive juice and got it refined into oil, to the people from the wider community who asked to come and participate. Just seeing projects and moments like that, activities where all sorts of different people come together to contribute, that’s just been absolutely phenomenal.”
Asked to describe something he’d like to accomplish in coming years, Rabbi Birnholz again spoke of community collaboration.
“We’ve been working on a rain garden project for a number of years. The rain garden didn’t fully come together. It came together in pieces, and we had some of it started but never got it finished. In the last couple of days an opportunity has been presented by a community organization that I connected with on a different project to finish that project. There are lots of different threads of ideas of things we’d like to do. I’m a gardener, so I’m always talking in garden metaphors. The seeds that we’ve identified, that we were able to plant and work together as a community, whether it’s the synagogue or the wider community, and just make some of these different ideas come to fruition.”
That interfaith dialogue is essential, especially when one group is subject to bigotry. Regrettably, we needed to discuss recent incidents in which anti-Jewish flyers have been left on driveways around Indian River County. Almost every rabbi and Jewish congregation in the country has to deal with this to some degree.
“Our congregation is dealing with fear and anxiety and worry, and how do we build people up and help them feel safe and secure in their Jewish identity. There is going to be senseless hatred in our world. How can we, in a safe and secure way, continue to live our Judaism in vital and meaningful ways? That was my sermon on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. It’s a heavy, weighty, and immediate topic for us. How do we build up our congregation knowing what the challenges are, and feeling comfortable and confident in who we are as we move through the world?”
“It goes back to that same interfaith community. I’ve been able in the last few weeks to reach out, and there is a group of people working on an effort to say ‘how do we stop hate in our world, how do we start kindness?’ Whether it’s anti-Semitic flyers or homophobic statements, racism, Islamophobia, it doesn’t matter what the hatred is, it’s incumbent on all of us to say that we don’t want that hatred around. We want the world to be one of grace and kindness and compassion.”
Rabbi Birnholz closed by expressing deep appreciation for all of the people who are part of his journey.
“I don’t think I could have ever envisioned when I got here 20 years ago that I would be able to do the things that I do, to engage people with Jewish tradition and Jewish ritual in the way that I do, and that’s because of the kindness and hospitality that folks have been showing me since I arrived. I am able to be the rabbi I am because of the love and care that I’ve received from all of those different layers of folks. As we’re celebrating that and acknowledging my 20 years of service, for me the biggest thing is the appreciation for everybody that has been part of me being able to do this.”
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